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Skillrow, Leading the Race in a Connected World: users impressions during the World Rowing Conference 2018

By Benedict Tufnell, editor of Row360 magazine
Nearly 300 members from the highest branches of the world’s rowing community attended the 2018 World Rowing Sports Medicine, Science and Coaches Conference, held in Berlin during the last week of November.

The event, organised by Ulm University and the German Rowing Federation on behalf of FISA, the international rowing federation behind World Rowing, focused on the latest scientific and technological rowing developments and on and its applicability for sports teams, coaches and medical teams. The event was packed with seminars, workshops and sponsored workshops, incentivising a constructive dialogue between every interested party.

The use of ergometers is necessary for off water training sessions
Alongside the speaking program, a selection of exciting and innovative new products from the sport were on show in Berlin. Of particular interest to coaches and team managers were the new Skillrow machines from Technogym that were being demonstrated by some of the team of engineers and scientists that had worked on its development.

National rowing team coaches were particularly eager to test the machine and experience the unique Aquafeel technology, which has been designed to more accurately mimic the stroke profile of on-water rowing.

Aquafeel is just one of the innovations that Technogym’s extensive research team have bought to the rapidly growing indoor rowing market with their new Skillrow offering. Technogym invests heavily in research and innovation with more than 10 percent of their workforce, including more than 100 engineers, contained within their R&D department.

To explain further, Technogym’s research and innovation managers Giuseppe Fedele and Davide De Remigis were invited to speak at the conference about the research that has been carried out at Technogym’s Health and Research Lab in Italy during Skillrow development.

An indoor rower made for athletes, by athletes

When the Skillrow project first began over two years ago, the initial task was to gather as much information as possible from some of the world’s best rowers.

The Technogym team dedicated the first phases of the project visiting rowing clubs as well as inviting Italian national team rowers such as world champion Bruno Rosetti to take part in tests at the Technogym lab. Technogym continues to work closely with Olympic medallists including Rio Men’s Eights gold medallist Scott Durant and Italian Olympic rowers Marcello Miani and Rossano Galtarossa.

Marcello Miani, Rossano Galtarossa and Scott Durant
Together, they were able to define what elite rowers wanted from an excellent rowing machine and the areas where improvement was needed the most. The next task was to translate these insights to Technogym’s team of engineers, so they could then begin the development of a prototype machine.

“Working together with the engineering department and scientists at Technogym we set out to develop something entirely new, something that could elevate rowing to the next level.”

The need to develop an ergometer like Skillrow was felt also by the scientific community: “for more than a centuryrowing machines have been used as a means of exercise and have come to be the most popular training tool for competitive rowers. However, as demonstrated in a scientific paper published by world renowned rowing bio-mechanist Valery Kleshnev, there was actually little comparison between the kinetics of existing indoor rowing machines at the time and actual rowing on water.

Kleshnev’s research showed the resistance curve experienced on popular rowing machines at the time was very different to that of an actual on-water rowing stroke. Rowing machines gave high initial resistance at the start of the stroke, which rapidly reduced towards the finish, whereas rowing on the water provided a more consistent resistance from start to finish of the stroke.

The rower with the same feeling of water rowing
And Kleshnev was not the only one to share such concerns. Another study, titled ‘The kinetic comparison of ergometer and on-water rowing’ and published in 1989 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine drew similar conclusions. Citing “delayed handle forces developed at the catch and increased handle velocity throughout the drive,” as being the key problem in modern rowing machines.

Such shortcomings in existing products motivated Technogym to develop the patented “Aquafeel” technology in Skillrow.

Skillrow parallax is both sleek and practical
There were two phases to this process. First we had to engineer an innovative resistance mechanism that could better mimic on-water feel. The second phase was to test and validate said mechanism until we were happy that we had achieved what we wanted.  We performed extensive tests, comparing bio-mechanical forces and oxygen uptake.

After a long process of prototyping, testing and refining together with researchers at Loughborough University, centre of excellence within the Technogym network and leading UK sports science institute, Technogym created a machine that provided exactly the same metabolic load as the leading competitor’s products, while also offering an improved resistance curve, with lower initial handle velocity at the catch.

Registering your real time data
The next step was to use accelerometers and EMG sensors to measure muscle contraction, to test the load on the lower back of rowers while using Skillrow. The sensors confirmed that, compared to competitor products, rowers experienced less lower back strain while using the Skillrow, thus resulting in a lower injury risk.

Lastly, the final and most vital stage of testing was to ensure the accuracy between machines. This was a particularly important point for coaches, because they require extremely accurate machines to test their athletes’ comparative strength when selecting their strongest crews for competition.

Comparative strength is a value to be measured to pick up the best team members
To validate Skillrow’s accuracy, Technogym's engineers built robots to row on the machines. With the robots repeating a series of identical timed, pieces they found the machines demonstrated superior accuracy, with a standard deviation of only 0.6%.

Real Challenge experience with Skillrow app

Looking beyond the accuracy and feel of the Skillrow, the presentation moved onto the impressive UI features the rower has to offer. Skillrow is fully connected via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Ant+ connectivity to both Skillrow and Skillrow Pro mobile apps. These would be particularly useful for coaches to chart and keep track of their athletes’ performances over time.

Of the many software features demonstrated however, of most interest to the coaches present was the connected racing technology developed for Skillrow.

In this feature, Technogym have developed a clever scientific formula that uses real rowing dynamics to accurately translate performances on the machine into equivalent on-water times for different boat categories. This is already an un-paralleled technology in the indoor rowing sector, but it goes further by also calculating the level of synchronisation between rowers racing on connected Skillrows, and adjusts their scores accordingly.

It means that just like in real rowing, the more synchronised the crew are in their application of power through the rowing stroke, the faster they will go. Synchronisation is measured in Skillrow by measuring both catch timing and peak force of each rower and then computing the crew average. Skillrow then shows each individual how well they are synchronised with the rest of their crew. Like in a real rowing boat, an out of sync crew will be slower than a synchronised crew.

Racing with Skillrow is both fun and accurate!
Upon the end of the presentation, coaches left clearly impressed by the work Technogym have committed to advancing rowing training. Skillrow represents a significant jump in technology that many would say has been long overdue.

While rowing is notoriously slow to adopt new products, the Italian national team - one of the best in the world currently - is already training on the Skillrow. With the myriad features and extensive research behind it, it looks to be just a matter of time before many more national teams follow suit.

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